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Circular Firing Squad

The winners, losers, and other losers, from the first Democratic debate.
June 27, 2019
Circular Firing Squad

That was . . . something?

I wanted to talk about the winners and losers at the Wednesday night debate, but let’s be honest—if you watched it you already know who lost: America.

Let’s go down the roll of shame.

Beto O’Rourke: I’m being entirely serious here—he should have done the whole debate in Spanish.

Its A Bold Strategy Cotton, Lets See If It Pays Off For Em

He’s toast. Once upon a time I had Beto as a dark horse to win it all. After Wednesday, I’ll be surprised if he’s still in the race 12 weeks from now.

Beto was over-rehearsed and stiff. No rock-star charisma. He looked like he was desperate to prove that he has some substance. Worst of all, he panicked. When the moderators tried to pin him down on the 70 percent top marginal rate, he evaded. When Mayor Bill and Julian Castro tried to shiv him, he looked terrified.

Don’t get me wrong: Beto had some good moments. But if you’re a Democratic voter and you pictured Beto onstage with Trump tonight, you’re ready to run for the exits.

Elizabeth Warren: She took a first-do-no-harm approach. No mistakes. No missteps. But all she really did was tread water. She didn’t go after Trump in any meaningful way. And she didn’t even allude to either Biden or Sanders, aside from saying she agreed with Bernie on Medicare for All.

Warren isn’t in a position to sit back and wait for the race to come to her. She has two established candidates with significant bases of support in front of her. She has a fresh-faced media creation (Mayor Pete) and a demographic thoroughbred (Kamala Harris) next to her. And all she did was hang around. That’s not good enough.

It was also a reminder that had Warren not gotten talked out of challenging Hillary Clinton in 2016, she’d probably be president right now. History rarely offers its great opportunities twice.

Tulsi Gabbard: She’s so mindlessly anti-war that she hurled the Bush-era epithet “chickenhawk” at the Trump Cabinet. Which has been famously dominated by former generals.

She’s so mindlessly anti-war that, as Noah Rothman put it, she tried to argue that the Taliban “kind of got a raw deal after 9/11.”

But here’s what I don’t get: We’ve got a group of teenage boys on the internet who have gathered together to try to turn Mike Gravel into a presidential candidate for the sole purpose of pushing an anti-war agenda.

While the surfer from Hawaii who served in the military, looks like a model, and could actually get some votes is sitting right there. And she’s running on nothing but an anti-war agenda. Are the Gravel kids . . . stupid, or just weird?

Jay Inslee: I was disappointed that he opened with the invention of the weekend and unions. I was promised a biodome. But by the end, he hit his marks, insisting that he didn’t just have a mission statement for climate change—he had a vision statement.

Bill de Blasio: Easily the single least likable person on the stage. There’s pandering, and then there’s pandering. And trotting out your biracial son as a rhetorical prop falls into the latter category.

But say what you will about Mayor Bill: At least he has a plan. And his plan is to out-Bernie Bernie. Maybe not a lot votes there, though. Because you can be socialist-curious and still get pretty wigged out by a 6’10” man shouting about how “the money” is “in the wrong hands!” And then attacking the very idea of private health insurance.

That said, de Blasio made a pretty strong bid to win the Wednesday-night Prog Twitter primary. Good for him?

Julian Castro: He seemed determined not to lose that Prog Twitter primary himself. So, like de Blasio, he singled out Beto for attack. And then he did maybe the single craziest thing of the night: He insisted that anyone with a uterus, man or woman, deserves an abortion whenever they want one.

So woke, bro.

You know what’s not so woke? Voting to give $600,000 in taxpayer subsidies to the Trump Organization so that your city can host one of his not-at-all-rapey Miss USA pageants. Maybe Castro will get lucky and no one will remember he did that before he drops out.

Amy Klobuchar: Was she even there? I suppose there might be a lane for a Democrat who isn’t as moderate as Delaney and Ryan, but is more pragmatic than Beto. If so, she’s going to dominate it.

Hard to see her getting to Iowa.

John Delaney / Tim Ryan: Any chance one of these guys wants to switch up and go as a Republican running to primary Trump? Because they’d get a lot more votes that way.

Delaney and Ryan were both impressive and common-sensical and exactly the type of liberals that the Democratic party needs to run if they want to dominate national politics for a generation and not just be a bunch of people totally owning the cons on Twitter with their sick dunks.

When Delaney talked about how Medicare reimbursement levels were so low that Medicare-for-All would bankrupt just about every hospital in America, part of me thought that maybe this would do that record-scratch thing for Democrats.

Nope. They just shrugged and barreled straight on to “Let’s kill private insurance so the rich folk can’t take our health care!”

Cory Booker: I guess maybe he won? Sort of? He spoke for more time than anyone else on stage, at least. He was energetic. I hear he lives in an African-American neighborhood. Those are all good things.

I’m goofing on him, but I’ll say this for Booker: You’ve got to nail four quadrants to win a debate: Likability, strength, substance, ideology. He was probably as close to hitting all of them as anyone other than Warren.

Which brings us to the real winners. Because three people absolutely crushed this debate.

Joe Biden: The guy is leading the pack by double digits, has a massive fundraising operation, the backing of the party establishment, and not only did no one lay a glove on him, no one even tried.

Biden wasn’t mentioned. Wasn’t alluded to. He flew totally under the radar. And, better yet, he did this while the Democrats on stage were ripping into each other. That’s a pretty good night.

Donald Trump: I have long believed that the structural features of the 2020 election made a Trump victory reasonably unlikely. Tonight was the first time I thought the race should be regarded more as an even-money proposition.

In the course of two hours, various Democratic candidates for president argued for:

  • Confiscatory tax rates
  • Abolishing private health insurance
  • Completely unfettered abortion, with no restrictions whatsoever
  • Either the buyback or outright confiscation of legally-owned guns
  • Reducing illegal immigration to a civil offense
  • Letting the Taliban live in peace

Any one of these positions is enough to cost Democrats the 2020 election. Imagine if the eventual nominee has to sign on to three or four of them?

But the best news for Trump is that the Democrats barely talked about him.

I don’t think Trump was mentioned by name until 16 minutes into the debate. Then the candidates went another 30 minutes before coming back to him. They only really went after him during the Iran segment, which is probably his least politically vulnerable spot right now. When the final transcript is up, my guess is that the word “Trump” was said aloud maybe 30 times over the course of two hours. (Update: The actual total was 20 times. Unbelievable.)

Instead, the Democrats fought each other over purity and issued challenges to one another and attacked Beto. How in the world do you let yourself get suckered into this when you’re running against a guy with 43 percent approval?

If you’re Brad Parscale, sitting there in your Fred Perry polo shirt, you had to be awfully happy.

Mitch McConnell: It utterly amazes me that with Donald Trump as president of the United States, the one who lives rent-free inside the collective mind of the Democratic party is this guy.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.